Tunisian president rejects Constitutional Court law amendments

The creation of a Constitutional Court has turned into a new tug of war between the president and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, exacerbating tensions that had resulted from a long series of political battles over the country’s control.
Monday 05/04/2021
Tunisian President Kais Saied signs letter rejecting amendments to the law on the Constitutional Court, April 4, 2021 (Tunisian presidency).
Tunisian President Kais Saied signs letter rejecting amendments to the law on the Constitutional Court, April 4, 2021 (Tunisian presidency).

TUNIS--Tunisian President Kais Saied refused on Sunday to sign the Constitutional Court Law amendments introduced by the parliament, fearing they would limit his powers and be used to overthrow him, according to political to political sources in the country.

The creation of a Constitutional Court has turned into a new tug of war between the president and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, exacerbating tensions that had resulted from a long series of political battles over the country’s control.

Since the first months of Saied’s presidency, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, the ruling party, Ghannouchi has reportedly schemed to remove Saied or at least limit his powers, with the aim of strengthening his party’s grip on the state’s legislative and executive institutions.

On Sunday, the Tunisian president sent a letter to Ghannouchi, rejecting the amendments and calling for respecting all provisions of the constitution. Political figures, however, suggested that the president’s rejection was driven by political reasons.

“It is clear that the rejection does not stem from a constitutional reading. Rather, there is a political context, considering that the Constitutional Court Law amendments came amid mounting tensions between the president and parliament speaker,” said activist and political analyst Tarek Kahlaoui.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, Kahlaoui explained, “The establishment of the Constitutional Court now has become tantamount to dismissing the president politically amid hostile moves targeting the Presidency. It is a risk and a gamble, because the current political context does not guarantee for any party a full control over the Constitutional Court.”

Kahlaoui did not rule out the president may submit a draft amendment of the law in line with his own vision, but it would be difficult to obtain the approval of parliament, which is dominated by the Ennahda Movement.

On March 25, parliament introduced amendments to the court’s law, after failing on eight occasions to complete the election of its members, with only one member out of four elected due to political disputes.

The parliament approved the ratified revisions of the draft bill for electing members of the Constitutional Court and reduced the number of votes from 145 to only 131.

Handwritten letter from Kais Saied to Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi. (Tunisian presidency)
Handwritten letter from Kais Saied to Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi. (Tunisian presidency)

The amendment was proposed by Ghannouchi to reduce the number of votes constitutionally necessary to pass the members of the court to 109 votes representing the absolute majority.

Observers believe Ennahda can obtain the necessary number of votes to pass certain candidates of the Constitutional Court, warning against an attempt by Ghannouchi to create a biased court that the Islamists would later use it to target their opponents, notably the president.

Ennahda has a majority in parliament (52 seats) and is allied with Qalb Tounes (38 seats) and the Dignity Coalition (21 deputies).

“The president’s rejection was expected, especially after his meeting with constitutional law experts,” said Hatem Meliki, an independent MP.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, Meliki considered that “the president can propose a constitutional amendment.”

“Saied sent a political message, noting that it is not possible to violate the constitution and that the issue cannot be tackled within the framework of a political deal that aims at his removal and the use of the Constitutional Court as a tool by parliamentary parties,” Meliki explained to The Arab Weekly.

On the president’s concerns over the role of some political parties, particularly Ennahda, Meliki said, “There are statements from the ruling coalition parties that the president will be removed by the court, and if the court’s objective is this, then such a move will affect its credibility.”

“In my opinion, dialogue is needed to resolve the crisis,” he added, noting that the political parties supporting the government want to contain the president’s intrusiveness and his strict interpretation of the constitutional text.

“Constitutional amendments are inevitable to guarantee a political process that would allow for the creation of a Constitutional Court and the de-escalation of current tensions,” Meliki said.

The Constitutional Court is a judicial body that was approved under the 2014 constitution, and it includes 12 members, 4 elected by parliament, 4 chosen by the Supreme Judicial Council (an independent constitutional institution), and 4 appointed by the President of the Republic.

The court monitors the constitutionality of draft laws, treaties, bills, and parliament’s internal rules. It decides on the prolongation of the state of emergency and resolves disputes over such issues.

The Constitutional Court is also able to end the president of the republic’s term, declaring the position of president vacant, receive the presidential oath and examine disputes related to the jurisdiction of both the president and prime minister.

The Secretary-General of the Republican Party Issam Chebbi said, “Constitutionally, the president has every right to reject any amendment, but politically speaking, Saied’s move shows he refuses to complete the establishment of constitutional bodies, transforming, hence, the state of vacuum into a fait accompli that he will try to use to his advantage in the current political struggle.”

“There remains hope in constitutional procedures. The president has the right to return the amendments for a second reading and ratify them again before getting the approval of the majority of 131 deputies. Then, the Constitutional Court could be established to play its vital role in the Tunisian democratic process.”